Fate, I Defy You: The Robert Silverman Liszt CD Sidebar 2: Robert Silverman part 2
Silverman: The entire fabric of the work is based on the three themes you hear right at the beginning: the quiet quarter-note Gs, followed by the descending scale [fig.1, track 1, 0:00]; then I was going to say the "Wagnerian" outburst right after that [fig.2, track 1, 0:43], but as far as I'm concerned a Wagner opera is an extended Liszt symphonic poem, the sonata staged and sung; then, finally, the repeated note theme [that starts with the] "snare-drum" triplet figure [fig.3, track 1, 0:55]. You turn the page over and every single thing that follows in this sonata—not just the melodies, but the whole intricate structure, the accompaniment, the counterpoint—is based on those three themes. For example, the threatening third theme is later transformed into a lyrical melody [track 1, 5:58]. The theme is exactly the same, but Liszt, as it were, gives it different clothes, [marking it espressivo rather than marcato and slowing the tempo,] transforming it so amazingly.
There are two exceptions, one of which is the glorious, maybe only slightly theatrical, D-Major theme which he calls "Grandioso" [track 1, 3:36]. Later on, when it appears very angrily in a minor key [track 1, 10:34], he wrote "Fate I defy you." And then there is maybe what is a love duet between Gretchen and Faust, if you will, almost at the very end, complete with he said then she said and he said and she said—a lot of musicians, particularly Hungarian ones, find the Faust legend in every single piece that Liszt wrote.
Atkinson: And then you have what is to all appearances a formal fugue at the Allegro energico [track 3, 0:00].
Silverman: The fugue is actually just an expansion of the 20 or so measures between the opening threatening motive and when the main theme first appears. It uses the same material. It is a testament to Liszt's genius that he has just spent 21 pages, at least in this score (footnote 1) [and over 21 minutes in this recording] developing and developing and developing three themes and two subsidiary themes, but he still has enough in him to write a fugue. And it really has a lot of interesting things going on—it's not just one of these fugues where you hear one or two voices and then everyone sings along. He does such immense things with it, and then when he returns to the main theme, for me it's almost catastrophic—it hurtles beyond what it did the first time, leading us to the theatrical Grandioso theme.
Atkinson: Yet even if you don't know anything about the underlying structure, this is such a wonderful piece of absolute music that it's impossible to resist on an emotional level.
Silverman: Since I've recorded Brahms for Stereophile, it's interesting to compare this sonata to the Brahms F-Minor sonata, which was written almost around the same time, in the early 1850s. They work on different planes but they both use a great deal of thematic manipulation, and they both use some sense of classical structure. And the composers share the desire to write something really big. These are two of the largest sonatas of the 19th Century.
Atkinson: Why should people listen to your recording of the Liszt Sonata when there are so many recorded performances available?
Silverman: On any given day, there are probably 50 performances of the Sonata out there, and some of them are wonderful performances. But what I've tried to achieve—and I think I've succeeded—is to see the piece as an organic development from the beginning to the end. I won't say I'm the only one who achieves it, but I take my time with the piece—33 minutes is longer than a lot of pianists take—but it doesn't seem that long when I play it because, I think, I take it seriously. I don't treat it like a showoff piece. I take almost any piece seriously, but I've studied this piece as though it were a sonata by Beethoven or Schubert. I'm trying to eliminate pyrotechnics and just get to the heart of the music.
Footnote 1: Liszt Sonata in B-Minor and Other Works for Piano, 1989, $8.95, Dover Publications Inc., 31 East Second Street, Mineola, NY 11501.